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(The 2020 SXSW Film Festival was sadly cancelled. Yet Hammer to Nail is still reviewing films that were slated to premiere at the fest! We present, #LostFilmsofSXSW. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

Lo-fi sci-fi is a joy when the director pulls it off, and Noah Hutton (Deep Time) does just that with his latest film, Lapsis. Set in what Hutton calls a “parallel present,” the movie follows the Queens, New York-bred Ray as he travels upstate to lay cable for a company touting itself as the key provider of “quantum” broadband, which is much better and faster than the alternatives. Normally a two-bit hood who makes questionable deliveries for unsavory characters, Ray is way out of his depth hiking through the woods with a tracking device on his hip, but he needs the money, since his younger brother has the chronic fatigue syndrome-like condition known as “Omnia.” And so we join him in this odd, yet compelling, meditation on working life in 21st-century America, where no one has any job protection and everyone is forced to work a series of part-time gigs to make ends meet. It may be cinematic fantasy, but it feels very real.

The whole enterprise is crafted with an eye for delightful narrative estrangement, little details meticulously layered the one on the other for maximum bizarre effect. Though the story centers around high digital technology, the production design revels in what looks like archaic analog devices altered (barely) for futuristic purposes. Whatever advances quantum may offer, it’s built on the skeletons of the just-discarded recent past. Nowhere is this best epitomized than in the robotic cabling machines that compete with the human workers, cobbled together from what looks like flimsy sheet metal and plastic. The dreams of a people are built with nothing more than cheap gadgets.

And slave labor. As the film progresses, its delightfully peculiar setup sets the stage for a sharp takedown of unfettered crony capitalism and its attendant criminal underpinnings. Ray lands the job with CBLR thanks to a corrupt acquaintance of his, and soon finds himself in possession of a “medallion” (the tracking device) that clearly once belonged to someone else, codename “Lapsis Beeftech.” That moniker opens up massive money-making opportunities to which other newcomers don’t have access, but also causes trouble. When Ray meets the enigmatic Anna on one of his routes, she gradually turns him on to the notion that the system may be rigged against anyone not a boss. He obviously knows it’s rigged, but thinks it’s in his favor. Not so fast. He eventually faces a stark choice of whether to be in it for himself, or for everyone. Solidarity forever? Maybe.

As Ray, Dean Imperial brings the perfect note of naïveté and cynicism, combined with, as Anna describes it, a “1970s mobster vibe.” She is played by Madeline Wise, who makes every strange utterance count with her deadpan delivery. Together, they are supported by a strong ensemble that buys into the restrained outlandishness of it all, helping us get the plot’s underlying seriousness even as we laugh at its simultaneousness frivolity (often quite funny). Though the ending is perhaps too cryptic for its own good, failing to land its final punch with adequate dramatic impact, the entirety of the enterprise is so satisfying that it barely matters. Lapsis is our here and now, and our future. Enjoy the madness.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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